‘Breaking In’ Film Review: Gabrielle Union Battles Burglars and Script Limitations

Union’s ingenious mom protects her kids from home intruders, but the character’s personality is as barren as the minimalist decor

Breaking In
Paul Sarkis/Universal

After Wonder Woman, the most famous super-powered woman in America is the mythical mother who can lift a car to save her child. I’ve always wondered where’s the movie about her, that remarkable everymom who’s as strong as Clark Kent and as regimented as Bruce Wayne.

There’s no barehanded raising of vehicles in “Breaking In,” but this home-invasion thriller from director James McTeigue’s (“V is for Vendetta”) more than fills that gap. Starring Gabrielle Union, “Breaking In” is a Mother’s Day movie for the family that already saw “A Quiet Place” together. It feels just as calculated, in fact, as those Garry Marshall-directed holiday-themed ensemble films that no one liked, but everyone saw. But the film’s undisguised mom-power cheerleading is so scarce in mainstream entertainment that it’s difficult to mind.

What does miff about “Breaking In,” though, is how the film’s commercial aspirations seem to get in the way of character and thematic development. Save for a couple of early scenes, Union’s Shaun Russell is largely shorn of history and personality; even the shirt she wears for the entire movie is a plain white tee.

Shaun attempts to protect her kids from robbers in the house she grew up in after the sudden death of her estranged, seemingly abusive father (Damien Leake). But the screenplay by Ryan Engle (“Rampage,” “The Commuter”) squanders its potential for emotional depth, making “Breaking In” a serviceable, but indistinct product.

Displaying little grief after her father’s hit-and-run murder, Shaun brings her children — adolescent daughter Jasmine (Ajiona Alexus, “13 Reasons Why”) and pre-teen son Glover (Seth Carr, “Bosch”) — to the sprawling estate where she grew up, and on which they’d never set foot until now, to clear out the house for sale. Unbeknownst to the trio, four million dollars sits in a safe inside the house, money that a quartet of thieves (Billy Burke, Richard Cabral, Levi Meaden, and Mark Furze) have come to snatch.

The manse is neither drool-worthy nor particularly convincing: immaculate counters and a lack of personal touches, save for a few family photos, make it pretty obvious that the set designer was on a strict budget. That’s fine, except that the too-clean interiors add to the sense of the characters being deliberately buffed out, or never given many details in the first place. Either way, there’s a defensiveness in the film’s less-is-more ethos, as if to make Shaun and her family as unobjectionable as possible — a decision that deprives the storyline of more layered stakes.

While one of the burglars wrestles with Shaun outside, the others kidnap Jasmine and Glover and sequester them in a room. Shaun’s attempts to get back inside of this intensively surveilled building to rescue her children keep shifting the calculus of the criminals’ end game: How many Russell children would it be best to keep alive? The twists and turns are plentiful and effective, but mostly humdrum movie material. Only an early scene, in which Shaun stabs one of the intruders with a broken piece of the wine glass she was sipping from just moments earlier, stands out as an ingenious bit of genre play.

In the midst of all the unease, Union shares a surprisingly moving scene with Alexus, in which the mother, planning a bold gambit, encourages her daughter to go along with the new plan in a speech that doubles as a possible goodbye. Union doesn’t get to exert too much of herself in this role, except physically. But she’s such a genial presence that it’s fun watching her embrace Shaun’s calm relentlessness, as well as her maternal warmth.

Moms can do it all, “Breaking In” proclaims. So why does it give Union only so much to do?